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New Jersey Boosts Telehealth Access for Veterans

A $290,000 grant to New Jersey's Virtua Health with help the health system expand its telehealth network to give veterans more access to primary and behavioral healthcare. It's one of several digital health projects aimed at veterans.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- New Jersey’s Virtua Health is getting almost $300,000 to enhance its telehealth platform for veterans.

The health system, consisting of four hospitals, dozens of clinics and care facilities, a fleet of mobile intensive care units and a home care services, will use the grant from the New Jersey Department of Health to, among other things, coordinate care for veterans through InSight Telepsychiatry.

“For many veterans, travel to see a healthcare provider can be complicated and overwhelming, particularly in areas where transportation options might be limited,” Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett said in a press release. “Telehealth can ease the burden by offering long-distance virtual care to veterans while they remain in a comfortable environment.”

While the Department of Veterans Affairs is well-known for his telehealth program, advocates say some veterans are staying away from VA hospitals because of concerns about overcrowding or quality of care. They may also have mobility or transportation issues, or emotional issues that keep them away from hospitals.

According to the NJDOH, one in five homeless Americans are veterans (the percentages are higher for men and minorities), while veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have an unemployment rate roughly 40 percent higher than the general population. Veterans also have higher rates of substance abuse and mental health issues, including PTSD, depression and anxiety.

The high percentage of veterans with behavioral health issues prompted the VA to launch a new telehealth initiative in 2016, adding new sites to its existing network of Mental Health Telehealth Resource Centers.

“We are in the midst of the largest transformation in the history of VA with MyVA, which means we are reorienting what we do around the needs of our veterans and providing care when, how and where they want to receive that care,” David J. Shulkin, the VA’s Undersecretary for Health, said at last year’s American Telemedicine Association conference and trade show in Minneapolis. “These mental health telehealth resource centers will provide our veterans in underserved areas the expert mental health providers they may not otherwise be able to obtain locally. We know that we are doing more in telehealth than any other healthcare system and connecting mental health providers to areas hard to recruit and retain.”

Shulkin – recently nominated by President Donald Trump to head the VA – said the telepsychiatry initiative follows two years of heavy public criticism and exposure, much of which has focused on veteran access to and wait times at existing VA facilities.

He said the VA is also bolstering its online presence, with some 32 mHealth apps now available and an enhanced patent portal accepting 1.7 secure messages from veterans to their providers in the past year, all designed to “encourage self-management among veterans.” On the horizon are a kiosk program and a text messaging program for medication management.

The VA isn’t the only healthcare provider looking to help veterans. In December, the Medical University of South Carolina released a study showing “little or no meaningful difference” in the quality of care between in-person visits and telehealth for veterans dealing with depression.

Also that month, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2017, which included expanded telehealth access for active duty military personnel and veterans. This followed by a few months a Department of Defense directive expanding the list of locations for military members seeking care to include the patient’s home and any “other patient location deemed appropriate by the treating provider.”

Federal officials have also given the green light to a pilot program that will dispatch mobile health vans across the country to serve female veterans, the fastest growing population within the military’s ranks and a group that generally tends to avoid VA hospitals. The specially equipped vehicles would include technology for mammograms, ob-gyn services, behavioral health counseling, cancer screening, lab work, wellness and health promotion and a range of other healthcare services.

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